The Spiritual Gardener: Cicadas and Fireflies

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There are now many signs that the summer has come to an end, and yet I am not sad about it. The light has that equinoctial glitter caused I would guess by a combination of the low humidity and the lowering angle of the sun.  We are able to spend the evenings on the patio again with our glass of wine, and even consider lighting a small fire in the patio fireplace. Phlox and helianthus are blooming, also sedums, cannas and dahlias, with mums looking better than ever.

Late September is the great time to plant sacks of daffodils for their spring glory. We buy them in bulk at big-box retailers for common varieties, then go online or to specialty garden centers for the more beautiful and unusual ones, such as these beauties.

I tidied up the vine topiary in the big urn on the brick column and cut another huge armful of mint, taking it inside to dry in the basement, for next year’s mint iced tea with lemonade.  I cut down numerous chive plants, freezing them for use in making pesto and soup stock this winter, singing “Bringing in the Chives” to the tune of “Bringing in the Sheaves” to annoy other members of the household – it never fails.  I suppose they must take the rough with the smooth, just like the rest of us.  I planted the last of the hundreds of irises I divided, in the oval bed, and dug up two huge batches of daffodils from under the pink azaleas on the corner, to divide them and colonize new areas with them.

This is also a pretty good time to dig up and divide irises (though August would have been better, you lazy thing). We love these rich red ones and can’t get enough of them.

Do you know what the sound of summer ending is?  This year it came on stealthily as I got up Sunday morning late (for me) at 7:45, and heard a light tapping in our dressing room, in the blue morning light radiating through our small skylight, and it turned out to be those tiny droplets of clear, cool water that sometimes fall out of the sky and that I think people who are familiar with them call “rain”, but personally I have not seen any for a very long time now, in fact about a month.  The cooling shower continued for a few hours and with it came a fresh new day, and you could just feel the arid tension flow out of the baked, suffering landscape.

The gallant canna lilies are still blooming well, like these brilliant orange ones, which are perfect for fall bouquets.

Monday morning, I saw another sign of summer’s ending when I stepped off our back stoop on my way to go to work and noticed a large, iridescent blue cicada clinging onto a large, variegated, acid-green hosta leaf.  It reminded me that the lovely summer chorus of cicadas is growing quieter and quieter, as more of this brood’s members complete their lifecycle.  Most people, I think, do not like the look or sound of cicadas.  They are large-featured, blunt-headed creatures and most people, probably thinking of their ugly exoskeletons found all over the yard in summer (the bugs’, not the people’s), find them more than a little repulsive.  Personally, I think they are rather far gone in gorgeousness. Here they have vivid peacock colors: bright green and iridescent blue, with black and dark brown accent colors.  And I find their whirring song charming, probably because I grew up in Western Colorado in a very hot and arid climate, where their humming and whirring were the song of my summer youth, so naturally those are pleasant associations.

Also great for fall bouquets are of course the classic chrysanthemums, with their hardy baits and wide range of colors. They are a godsend in the fall garden.

Once, when I was 17 and was living in Australia, I went on a trip to see, among other marvels, an enormous, 50,000 acre sheep station in north-central New South Wales, called “Raby” if memory serves, though that was a long time ago now. The people who lived there at that time managed the property for a giant English land-holding concern.  Their house was very large and very gracious, built gloriously in the Australian colonial style, with thick stone walls and deep shady verandahs on all sides, tin roofs overall and even a large swimming pool.  It was situated near a river of sorts and was surrounded by large shade trees. Not long before I visited, the Queen and Prince Philip had been in Australia and the Prince had been a guest at Raby and actually stayed in the beautiful room I was also given.  Along the river by the house grew enormous old gum trees and the cicadas in the trees were legion there.  Once they all started humming their loud song it was rather deafening, so the house was required to be strictly silent in the morning to postpone the inevitable start of the chorus for as long as possible, because the careless bang of a screen door would set them off and they would sing almost maddeningly until you fell asleep, late that night.

Likewise dahlias, that go on and on in autumn until the first hard lick of frost cuts them down.

Cicadas live an extraordinary, 17-year life cycle.  After they hatch above ground and fall to the earth as larvae, they live in the soil as grubs, only emerging into the light as familiar insects in their final year of life, really just a season, and that scarcely three months long.  Every year has a new generation, of course, but one brood is mysteriously called “Brood X” and is extremely large in parts of the eastern U.S., though no one knows why.  I noticed them emerge in the summer of 1987, when we were living in the leafy northern Virginia suburbs of our nation’s capital and they were most astonishing.  It was actually difficult to walk down the sidewalk without stepping on them, no matter how careful one was, and the noise they made was quite deafening for the three to four weeks that they were at their peak.  Hundreds of them would be on every tree trunk, every screen door was covered with them; they were everywhere.  They do no harm and are merely enjoying their brief time in the sun, as we all are, but people of course get a little over-wrought and were trying to kill them or otherwise harass them, which I am afraid made the larger and more intelligent species look much smaller and rather foolish.

I remember that particular summer well, not only because the cicadas were so amazing, but because I had decided to ask my future wife to marry me and I had selected a marquise diamond and two flanker diamonds that I was having made into a ring.  My plan was to propose to her in August after I had finished paying for the ring, which cost what I thought at the time an astronomical sum.  I was so thrilled to be the single person on the planet privy to this tremendous secret in my breast and I well remember driving out into the humid, forested Virginia suburb of Maclean to the jeweler’s store with a secret love song in my heart and all of creation shrieking its awesome, mechanically whirring love song back to me in reply as I flew into the forest on my secret-jewel-of-love’s errand.  She went on to say yes to my proposal, in case you were wondering, and wedding bells and wedded bliss followed in the usual way.  But returning to the cicadas: seventeen years later, when this brood emerged again, we were again living in the East, this time in southern New Jersey and, while loud,  their reappearance was not nearly as impressive there as in northern Virginia.

And talking of stalwart flowers, you have to love phlox for their sturdy health, spreading habits and delicate purple flowers.

Fireflies or lightning bugs lead a similar sort of existence, but they are much smaller and advertise themselves more charmingly, with light of course, rather than with sound.  They are not really a fly, but rather a beetle, and it is not generally known that their larvae and even their eggs give off a soft, luminescent glow, hence “glow worm” as they are sometimes called.  Where I grew up it was far too dry for them, but every other year or so we would go to Wisconsin where my parents were both raised, and where my grandparents and cousins still lived.  And for two weeks or so we would spend most evenings catching fireflies and marveling over them as many children have commonly done.  We would keep them in fruit jars (this was in a time when every home had fruit jars on hand, as well as home-made preserves to put in them) and stay up late holding them, on my aunt and uncle’s screened porch, listening to the adults talk and smoke and laugh over their highballs and bridge games, while we grew sleepier, clutching our glowing, glazed worlds with their tiny pulsing lights.  They would glow in our bedrooms at night, living nightlights, and then in the morning we would let them go again.

One of the things I really like about living in the east again is having fireflies about the place once more. They seem to come out in the second week of June and to vanish again by August, though sometimes we have seen a few lonely, as yet unmated stragglers in late August or even one or two in September, I believe.  It is wonderful to sit on our dark patio on a midsummer’s night and watch their tiny golden lights flash on and off in the dark green bowl of our backyard, at the sublimely hypnotic semaphore of summer.